Keaton, Buster (1895-1966)
Keaton, Buster (1895-1966)
With the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton stands as the greatest comedian of the silent movie era. Keaton appeared in well over 100 shorts and features during his fifty-year film career. At the height of his popularity, he played aloof, stone-faced characters (he only smiled once in a film), who fiercely battled both nature and out-of-control machinery to achieve modest goals (usually for the affections of a woman). Much of his best work was lost for decades, only to be rediscovered by an appreciative new generation of filmgoers in the 1950s.
Keaton began learning his craft at an early age. Born Joseph Francis Keaton in Piqua, Kansas, in 1895, Buster spent his youth traveling the vaudeville circuit with his parents, who staged a mildly popular comedy act. By age five, Buster, who received his nickname from a family friend after he tumbled down a flight of stairs without hurting himself, had become the star attraction of "The Three Keatons." His primary role in the show was to absorb his father's abuse—he kicked, punched, and threw Buster around the stage with little regard for his well-being. Buster's ability to take this abuse without showing pain or emotion brought roars of approval from packed houses and lifted the act to prominence.
Keaton's big break came in 1917 when he met comedic film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was familiar with his vaudeville work. Arbuckle asked him to make a brief appearance in his current short, The Butcher Boy. Keaton accepted and never returned to the stage. The film was a hit, and Keaton joined Arbuckle's Comique Studio as an actor, director, and gag writer. He eagerly studied Arbuckle's filmmaking methods and made them his own. He adapted the emotionless demeanor he had affected for his stage act to the screen, and tried to strike a balance between Arbuckle's slapstick style and his own, more subtle brand of humor. The resulting mix worked, and the two made a number of successful films between 1917 and 1920. When Arbuckle left Comique in 1920, Keaton was put in charge of the studio's comedy unit.
Making the most of his new-found authority, Keaton made a string of acclaimed two-reel comedies that contain some of the finest moments ever captured on film. Many of his gags had a surrealistic quality. In The High Sign (1920), for example, he sits down on a bench and unfolds a newspaper which, when fully exposed, completely engulfs him. He wanders, lost, through a maze of want ads before escaping through a hole in the paper. His best work also took advantage of audiences' love and fear of the modern, mechanized world. Sometimes, as in The Electric House (1922), machines go too far. Keaton's elaborately wired house goes haywire, causing his washing machine to throw dishes and his escalator to move so quickly that it hurls people out of a window. At other times, man is clearly the master of machine. In The Blacksmith (1922), Keaton (without realizing it) manages to turn a white Rolls-Royce black, one handprint or blowtorch mark at a time. The infernal and filthy machine meets its final demise when Buster shatters its windows with a sledgehammer, then crashes an engine into it. Sometimes the laugh was at man's expense, sometimes at the machine's, but the two were always inextricably linked, both in audiences' world and Keaton's.
Keaton's sense of absurd surrealism and his use of machines as comedic vehicles carried over into his full-length comedies. In 1923, he directed his first feature film, The Three Ages, a satire of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Although it was an admirable debut, he did not really hit his stride until Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which he plays a projectionist who, while dreaming, becomes a character in the movie he is showing, a concept that Woody Allen would later use in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Keaton cranked out four more films in the next two years, including his hilarious The Navigator (1924), before producing his magnum opus, The General (1926). In this, his favorite film, he plays a young, Southern train engineer eager to enlist in the Confederate Army. The Army rejects him, claiming that he is more valuable as an engineer than a soldier. Adding insult to injury, the Yankees steal his beloved locomotive and spirit it across their lines, with Keaton furiously chasing in another engine. He eventually steals back his train, and the film climaxes with a spectacular crash as a bridge collapses under the pursuing bluecoats' train. Besides containing some priceless comedy, The General has an epic sweep that was matched by few films in the silent era.
Keaton's work during the 1920s should have been enough to ensure his place among the immortals of film. And yet, he was in very real danger of being forgotten. Even at the peak of his popularity, he was unfavorably compared to rival comic Charlie Chaplin (who he privately loathed). Critics labeled Chaplin an "intellectual" comedian, while Keaton was merely an average funnyman who knew how to take a fall.
His sound-era films did little to enhance his reputation. In 1928, Keaton gave up his independence and signed with MGM. He made the leap to talking films but found himself being typecast as an incompetent bumbler. Worse, he had to play second banana to the scene-stealing comic Jimmy Durante. The two combined on several dreary films in the 1930s that effectively ended Keaton's career. He continued to make mostly forgettable films into the 1960s, highlighted by memorable appearances in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and also starred in two short-lived television shows. His silent movies sat in film cans, unwatched and disintegrating. The release of The Buster Keaton Story (1957), a mostly fictionalized account of his life, renewed interest in his films, which were restored and finally acknowledged as classics. He received a special Academy Award in 1959 for his "unique talents." His body torn by a lifetime of smoking and periodic bouts of alcoholism, Buster Keaton died of cancer in 1966.
—David B. Welky
Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York, Macmillan, 1966.
Keaton, Buster. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York, Doubleday, 1960.
Meade, Marion. Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase. New York, Harper Collins, 1995.